From Behind the Scenes She Recruits Bush’s Team

Share via
Times Staff Writer

As President Bush puts the finishing touches on his second-term team, one of the most powerful -- and purposely least known -- White House figures in the effort is a 31-year-old, Egyptian-born woman who is the administration’s chief headhunter and recruiter.

Dina Powell, assistant to the president for presidential personnel, may be the most important White House aide who is rarely photographed, and that’s how she likes it.

Keenly aware that her job requires an under-the-radar approach to publicity, Powell declines most interviews as she goes about the business of recruiting hundreds of political appointees for the administration -- including high-profile Cabinet officials and members of obscure commissions.


In a rare interview, Powell talked about the challenges of assembling a team to advance the interests of a president who has made it clear he has grand ambitions for his second term.

“When I recruit people I say, ‘You don’t want to be on the sidelines when the president accomplishes the agenda he was reelected on,’ ” she said. “And I tell them, ‘When that’s happening, you want to be on his team.’ ”

Bush is involved in selecting members of his senior leadership team, she said. “We make the recommendations, the president makes the decisions.”

Noting a record of diversity among Bush’s top appointments, Powell points with pride to the recent White House recruitment of Kellogg Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Carlos M. Gutierrez as Commerce secretary. She revels in his career trajectory, from selling Frosted Flakes to running the company.

“It says so much about the individual and about America,” she said. “Our country is a meritocracy.”

She should know. Powell, the youngest person ever to hold her job, is an immigrant and the highest-ranking Middle Eastern American in the White House.


Born Dina Habib, she came to the U.S. from Egypt at age 4 with two parents who had dreams for her and her younger sister. They settled in Dallas near her grandmother, Nora, whom she adored. Powell learned English. She noticed that the other kids brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch while she and her sister brought moussaka. The family all became naturalized citizens.

Powell helped pay for college at the University of Texas by working at the Legislature, where she was an aide to two state legislators. She planned to be a lawyer.

But then George W. Bush was elected governor, and she admired what she saw as his results-oriented approach, which got her thinking about public service. Deferring law school, she grabbed at a chance to come to Washington -- serving as an intern for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and later as a staffer to then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

In 1999, she headed the congressional office at the Republican National Committee, part of the team that worked to elect Bush president.

After the campaign, she came to work in the presidential personnel office under Clay Johnson III, now deputy director for management in the Office of Management and Budget.

Six months after Powell started working at the White House, her parents came for a visit and watched a presidential arrival ceremony on the South Lawn. After the helicopter landed, Bush shook hands along the rope line. When she introduced her parents, the president told them how delighted he was to have their daughter on his staff. Then he was gone. She turned to look at her parents. They were both crying.


“You have to understand,” she said. “It was overwhelming. It affirmed for them the tough decision to leave everything they knew behind. In what other country could an immigrant family go from risking it all to one day having their daughter work for the president of the United States?”

Married to a senior public affairs executive, Powell now has her own daughter, a 3-year-old she describes as a “peanut.” Acknowledging the difficulties of being a working mother, she praises both her husband, “an unbelievably supportive partner,” and the president, whom she described as running “a family-friendly White House.”

She admits that the hours are long and that she sometimes rushes home to have dinner with her family before returning to the White House to finish the day’s work.

Few of the 4,000 presidential appointees left the administration during Bush’s first term, but some are leaving now, requiring successors. Even as the vacancies are filled, she is aware that more will soon be leaving -- a never-ending conveyor belt of personnel changes.

Observers who have spent their lives watching the presidential personnel process give her high marks for running a professional operation and for being conscientious about reflecting Bush’s preferences.

“She has gone about this in a very business-like way, drawing on the best practices that top search firms use,” said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive of the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group of former government executives. “I have been impressed.”


Bob Tuttle, who served as President Reagan’s presidential personnel director, said he appreciated Powell’s “passion for personnel.”

Tuttle said he was astonished when his first meeting with Powell -- “what I thought would be a grip and grin” -- went well beyond the scheduled 15 minutes. “We were like two kids talking baseball,” he said. “She’s an incredibly bright and energetic individual.”

Despite the flap over Homeland Security nominee Bernard Kerik -- a setback that Powell, ever discreet, declined to discuss -- Tuttle said that the recruitment of fresh talent for Bush’s second administration was “perhaps the smoothest transition in history, and she deserves the credit.”

Noting President Theodore Roosevelt’s rueful remark that with every appointment he made 10 enemies, Tuttle observed that “modern presidents have gotten a lot smarter -- they’ve delegated the job.”

On a trip last year to Egypt -- her first since high school -- Powell met with the newest Cabinet officers in President Hosni Mubarak’s government, discussed economic reform and called on the president’s wife.

She also took the opportunity, at a lecture at the Al Ahram Strategic Center in Cairo, to defend Bush’s Mideast policies. Quoting Bush’s remark that “freedom is not America’s gift to give to the world, it’s God’s gift to humanity,” she praised the president for reaching out to Muslims and for his stance against racial profiling.


As a daughter of Egypt, she said, she fervently believes that “the president’s vision of freedom and opportunity for the region is the right approach.”

With Palestinians and Iraqis going to the polls this month, ushering in a new era of citizen participation, Powell was asked about her own future. “Like all presidential appointees,” she said, smiling, “I serve at the pleasure of the president.”